Family Time with the Nelsons
By Kerri Regan
Something to Smile AboutJuly 2015
By Kerri Regan
Retired dentist Leon Nelson considers himself “an expert on smiles”—and it runs in the family.
His son, Mike, and grandson, Chris, have made careers out of creating perfect smiles for other people. But his expertise also comes from lots of personal experience, as his love for his work, the outdoors and his family keeps a smile on his own face just about all the time.
These dentists and adventuresome nature enthusiasts have made indelible marks on the community individually, yet they thrive on working (and playing) together.
“If you like to do things, Redding is the place to be,” Mike says.
“There’s Whiskeytown Lake, creeks, hundreds of miles of trail. Dad’s fished every creek in Shasta County, from start to end, and hiked up all of them.”
When this family dental legacy began in 1960, Redding only had 13 dentists. Leon had to ferry patients to his offices in the building on stilts overlooking the Sacramento River at 25 South Street, and he had one treatment room with a chair that didn’t recline. He did two emergency root canals on Bing Crosby two days before Christmas in 1968.
Back in the 1970s, Leon employed two ambitious Shasta High School teens as his janitors—his own son, Mike, and Ron Zufall, now a longtime Redding dentist. And when he needed some office assistance, he leaned on Shasta High School again.
“My dad called the school and said he needed someone with an A in shorthand, an A in English and an A in typing,” Mike says. Leon hired a smart and lovely young woman, and her workspace was in the basement.
“Mike would take the garbage out five times a day to walk past her,”
Leon says. Mike and Rhonda have now been married for 35 years, and have two grown children – Kendra and Chris.
After Mike graduated from Shasta High and the University of the Pacific’s dental school (just like his dad), he began working alongside his father in their Redding office. A generation later, Chris also graduated from Shasta High School and the University of the Pacific’s dental school. Today, he is the dental clinic director for Hill Country Health and Wellness in Round Mountain and works on Fridays with his father at their Redding dental office. Leon retired from full-time dentistry in 2003, but comes back to the Nelsons’ dental office occasionally to work on dentures.
“It’s fun to collaborate,” Mike says. “I learn things from Chris, and I learn things from Dad. We all learn from each other.”
Although just about everything else about the world has changed dramatically since Leon was a boy, Northern California’s scenic beauty has remained a constant.
“When I first backpacked with my dad, we had big Army-issue backpacks made of a lot of wood and canvas. We got all of our equipment at the Army-Navy store on Pine Street,” Leon says. “The backpack weighed about 50 pounds, and now we carry no more than 25.”
When Leon and Donna married and started their family, they camped almost every weekend. Mike recalls, “He’d take us up on a Thursday, set us up, come back and work Friday, then come up for the weekend”—and he and Rhonda orchestrated similar treks while they were raising Kendra and Chris.
Roller hockey, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, geocaching, backpacking and photography are among the many interests that the men still enjoy – either alone, together or in pairs. The three schedule at least one annual backpacking trip into the Trinity Alps wilderness. “These things tie us together,” Mike says.
Several years back, Backpacker magazine and the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture sponsored 50 teams to map the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail for the first time. More than 3,000 people submitted applications to be volunteers, and Mike and Leon were selected to map 50.2 miles of the trail in Wyoming. Their name was “Team TarpMan,” since Leon hasn’t camped in a tent in decades— he prefers tarps.
The Nelsons are also heavily involved with Shasta High music, and Leon and wife Donna have volunteered with the school’s musicals since they began in 1975. Mike is a videographer for the productions, and Chris (a widely published photographer) takes photos and videos
in addition to serving as an acting coach for the Madrigal Dinner. “I like to be a role model for kids,” Chris says.
They also seemed to have mastered the art of marriage. Leon has been married for 59 years to Donna, and Mike has been married for 35 years to Rhonda. Chris and his wife, Katie, are expecting their first baby this fall.
The whole family prides itself on enjoying life’s adventures together, and relishing every moment. “Everything he does, he loves,” Mike says of his father, “whether it’s Walmart or the latest meatloaf recipe or the next sunrise.”
And as they reflect on their unique family bond, it seems to dovetail just perfectly with the way Mike describes the way that they approach a much-anticipated wilderness destination.
“Whenever we crest a ridge, we don’t look over the ridge until we’re all there together,” Mike says.
Favorite place to pitch a tarp: Little Duck Lake. “It’s a superb place with flat ground.”
Favorite place to photograph the sunset: Emerald Sapphire Lake in the Russian Wilderness.
Best place for a day hike with kids: Big Boulder Lake. “It was Chris’ first hike.”
Best getaway: Bingham Lake. “It has a unique shoreline with white sand around the entire perimeter, but the lake always has the same level of water so it’s never exposed. You can sit up to your chest in the water and there’s no gooey algae - it’s almost like a spa experience. And it’s loaded with fish.”
Best place to kayak: Whiskeytown Lake. “You can go out there and forget you’re near home.”